Stability Renewed: Lucy’s Story

Drawn by Howard County’s reputation for good schools, Lucy decided in 2012 to move with her young children from Prince George's County.  The single mom was already becoming fluent in English as she completed her GED studies at Howard Community College, while holding down two and sometimes three jobs at a time. She wanted her second-grade daughter and fourth-grade son to be in the best school system around, she said.  

She found a place to rent in Columbia, and while not perfect, it would do. But three years later, she was asked to move so the landlord could sell the condo she was renting. She did, finding a small, one-bedroom place with an alcove where her son could sleep. Then, after two more years, she was told her unit was going up for sale again, but that’s when her luck changed. “I was very sad and very worried,” she said, recalling that stressful time, but this sale helped, not hurt her family. The buyer was Bridges to Housing Stability, the Howard County non-profit that today owns 58 housing units and uses them to help people struggling with ever-higher housing costs.  

“I did not find Bridges. Bridges found me,” she said, and she feels really good about it. The restaurant worker/house cleaner/catering worker not only was allowed to stay, but she received vital support during the pandemic when her restaurant closed for a time, and during the weeks she was sick with Covid herself and couldn’t work at all. “It was very scary,” Lucy remembered.  

During that dark time in 2020, Bridges helped cover her rent and brought food for the holidays while offering other support.  But Lucy is proud, too. If she felt she had enough food at home, she said, she declined extra food. “I prefer the boxes go to someone who really, really needs it.”But that doesn’t mean she isn’t grateful for all the support she’s received from Bridges. “I’m very blessed,” Lucy said. She couldn’t afford a mortgage in Howard County, and although housing costs in Howard have sharply risen since the pandemic, Lucy and her young adult daughter, now a college student, moved in 2022 to a more spacious Bridges-owned property in the agency’s Alliance Program.   

Both Lucy and Kristin Miller, Bridges’ Alliance program manager, say that things have worked out well. Back when she thought she would lose her old one-bedroom, Lucy said a Bridges official came by to look the place over and was pleased to find her cleaning the apartment even though she believed she would have to move after the sale. “Lucy has worked hard to increase her income and provide for her daughter,” Miller said. Lucy explained that her son, now 22, lives independently. “I work a lot,” Lucy said, something Miller confirmed. “Every time I talk to her, she’s on her way to or from work. The program has really been a good fit,” Miller added.   

Lucy’s experience is unusual, in that most people the agency helps have spent time at Grassroots, the county’s homeless shelter, or have been homeless or nearly homeless. Lucy knows how lucky she is. “If I wasn’t with Bridges, I don’t know where I was going to end up living. I wouldn’t be able to afford the rent around here.” At the same time, she is proud of her hard work and the life she has helped give her children. “I am not a victim. I’m a very blessed person,” she said. 

A Mother’s Journey of Resilience and Advocacy: Sheila’s Story

Often, homelessness looms after one major misfortune, but for Sheila and her young son, the misfortunes piled up like a snowball rolling downhill, leading to two bouts of homelessness and eventually, an emotional breakdown. Helped by Grassroots, Howard County’s homeless shelter, and later by Bridges to Housing Stability, Sheila’s life has changed dramatically over the last decade. Her son is now finishing high school and planning for college. She has a steady job and they live in a rental condo owned by Bridges. She is saving money and planning a brighter future. Looking back, it has been a long, hard journey, she said. 

 “I just couldn’t make it,” she said. “Everything was happening all at once.” 

A 10-year Navy veteran, Sheila left the service after her mother died. She moved back to Maryland to take care of her son, then 4, whom her mother had cared for when she was at sea. She had enlisted right after high school and planned a 20-year Navy career, but with her mom’s death, she knew she had to leave the Navy to care full-time for her son. 

“I left military service with no real plan, other than knowing that being a mom was my priority and obligation,” she recalled. 

Working part-time and going to school, she found it impossible to afford their one-bedroom apartment. They were evicted. She had earlier split with her child’s father, who was physically abusive to her and verbally abusive to their child. “I was afraid to go out,” she said. She needed hospital treatment several times. 

After the eviction, they slept in her car until it was repossessed. They ended up at Grassroots, Howard County’s homeless shelter, where she eventually got the help she needed to find a full-time job. She was helped by a daycare voucher for her son and later a prekindergarten program. Having grown up in a family that had never had to ask for help, she was at a loss to find a way forward without support. 

“I had never been on any sort of government assistance before,” she said. “I didn’t know anything.” 

Over a year’s time at Grassroots, she saved her money, obtained a car from Vehicles for Change, a non-profit that finds vehicles for people who earn low income, and later found a new apartment, with more help from Grassroots. But it didn’t last. After a year or so, the landlord said he had distant relatives coming and needed the apartment for them. Sheila couldn’t find another place she could afford, mainly because of her ruined credit rating. “My credit was horrible,” she said. She and her son became homeless again. She sought help again from Grassroots and was referred to Bridges‘ Alliance Program, which places people in affordable rental homes owned by the non-profit. But it took six months of couch surfing with friends before a unit opened up. 

Finally, with help from a co-signer, she got her new place in 2017 and things have improved ever since. Her rent is affordable and Bridges helped provide furniture, food and school supplies. Bridges staff members still keep in touch and provide holiday assistance. 

“Once I was in (the new home) I could work on my credit,” she said. “It was somewhere it was safe to be. Bridges also arranged help from a financial adviser and a counselor.” Now Sheila is paying down her debts and saving money as her income has increased, along with her hopes for her son’s future. 

“My son is very, very bright,” she said. “He’s always done great” in school. She took courses in the Navy too, achieving a two-year Associates Degree and more toward an eventual Bachelor’s degree. Without the support from Bridges, Sheila said she’d have been lost. “I don’t think we’d have made it to this point if it wasn’t for Bridges,” she said. “I just know back then, we had nothing.” She couldn’t even rent a room with a child and bad credit. 

Dana Sohr, Bridges’ Deputy Director who was Sheila’s case worker for a time, said he was impressed with her. He noted that as Sheila’s own situation has stabilized, she has gotten involved in advocating for more affordable housing in Howard County to help others who just need some financial breathing room in order to thrive.  “From homelessness to stable work with increasing income and then getting a kid into college … that’s a win for Sheila and a great example of the outcomes that Bridges’ programs strive to achieve,” he said.  

 

A Decade-Long Journey to Stability and Success

Melissa DiMartino’s long journey to Bridges to Housing Stability began more than a decade ago when virtually every aspect of her life seemed to be in ruin. Mired in an abusive long-term relationship, besieged by serious physical and emotional problems while trying to raise her then-young son, she finally left home for help from HopeWorks, the county’s domestic violence agency. She then moved into HopeWorks transitional housing, and then finally found permanent housing with Bridges to Housing Stability. The contrast between 2012 and 2023 is striking. 

Now her son is a high school senior set to graduate in May with both a high school diploma and an Associate of Arts degree. At 48, she has stable housing, co-parents with her ex in the way their child needs and deserves, is in better health, and has control over her depression, anxiety, and her life in general. 

“I was under a lot of physical stress. My mental state was really poor,” she said. “I wasn’t sleeping.” She was being treated for cancer, she used food to help escape her anxiety, and her weight ballooned. She had never really had control of her own life, she said, and her ex did things like turning off the water heater, preventing her from driving anywhere, and blocking the refrigerator. Even as she recovered from cancer surgery, she walked with her son to the supermarket nearby and ate cold food at the tables within the supermarket. 

The comprehensive help she got from Bridges was a godsend, she said. “It has been life-saving.”  

Danielle Winston, a Bridges Housing Advocate who has worked closely with Melissa for the past six years, agreed that the transformation has been dramatic. 

“This is a huge accomplishment for her and her family,” Winston said. Melissa is a client in Bridges’ Housing Stability Program, the agency’s only long-term supportive housing program. The program’s capacity is 22 clients at any one time. 

Since she first came to Bridges, Melissa has received help learning to create a budget, paying her bills on time by using separate envelopes to keep money for different purposes, helping build good relations with landlords and neighbors, and making new friends all while advocating for herself and her son. She also got help from a mental health therapist, received Social Security Disability income, and is waiting for a Housing First Choice Voucher to help pay her rent long-term. She is proud to have substantially improved her credit score and credits Bridges’ financial literacy education with the improvement in her finances.  

Melissa currently receives SNAP benefits, medical care for her ongoing cancer treatments, medical guidance for obesity, and back injuries from a fall. She had COVID-19 in 2021, she said, and was hospitalized. With the help of her supportive community, her ex was able to take care of their son while Melissa was hospitalized. “He started stepping up. He stopped drinking and focused on being present with our son in ways I never thought possible,” she said. He continues to help and be supportive. 

Winston credits Melissa’s inner strength as another important reason for her progress. “She is a person who is determined to make her son proud,” Winston said. The key to keeping her chin up and moving forward, Melissa said, comes from within. “It is my faith in God,” she said, that has pulled her through the darkest of times, through the grief of child loss, and the death of her father this year. 

“This year, I realized I’m not a failure. My heart is exactly where it needs to be to raise my son,” she said. In elementary school, her son was being bullied, but she got help from a fellow church member who got him a scholarship to a parochial school. Now, he plans to continue in college and become an engineer. 

“The people we were in the beginning were so broken, so helpless. I never knew what life could be like in a home of our own, but today I do,” she said. Now despite her cancer, “we are just a happy little family.” 

A Stable Home Creates the Foundation for a Secure Future: Colena’s Story

The search for a secure place to live has been long and often difficult for Colena and her family, but now she feels things are finally going the right way, thanks to Bridges to Housing Stability.

The 37-year old and her mother began the journey a decade ago, she said, spending several years living in a basement apartment that often lacked heat and hot water. And with a landlord who was just as unreliable.

“That started our journey renting rooms,” she said, sometimes from sketchy landlords, while her family grew with the arrival of two children, now 4 and 9. They bunked for a couple of years with a relative, but tensions rose and he moved out of state, so they had to leave again. Then came a period of couch-surfing with a friend, followed by a series of motel rooms, with all four crammed into one room.

“We finally didn’t have enough money to do hotels,” she said, so the family went in June to Grassroots, Howard County’s emergency shelter, which put them up in another motel, but funding for that program was running out. Finally, through Grassroots, Colena said she came to Bridges in September, and found a two-bedroom townhouse in Baltimore County that she thought might be affordable. Bridges helped get them into the home within a week, Colena said.

Alberta Medley, a housing advocate at Bridges, said the non-profit paid the security deposit and the first two months of rent, and the family moved in late September.

Bridges owns 56 affordable rental homes in Howard County but can help people find housing anywhere in the United States. Like many people one step from being homeless, Colena just didn’t have the money or support to get her own place, and she had some credit problems as well. Bridges provides initial funding and supplemental support for a period of time, and frequently vouches for those who need to convince a landlord to give them a chance.

The support from Bridges often includes small but important essentials such as food, school supplies and cleaning materials, holiday gifts, and in Colena’s case, kitchen utensils.

In addition to Bridges’ help, Grassroots pitched in with bedding and friends donated some furniture. Now Colena is focused on finding a job and starting to build a future.

“She’d been living in hotel after hotel for quite a while, but from day one, she’s been extremely organized to get a home,” Medley said about Colena. Any suggestion made to her generates an instant response, Medley added. “She does it right away.”

That is a trait she has learned over time, Colena said, noting she struggled with depression and anxiety years ago. “Procrastination was my downfall, actually,” she said, in sharp contrast with how she handles challenges now. She attributes the change to being a mother and the responsibilities that entails.

Currently, she’s getting by on government-provided Temporary Cash Assistance and a small monthly child support payment, she said, but she’s hopeful that with a secure place to live, things will be getting better. She wants to get a job as quickly as possible, followed by a driver’s license, and one day a car. For now, though, there is a bus stop just down the street.

Meanwhile the family is settling into their new abode. “We can breathe a sigh of relief now that we’re in here,” she said. Her 7-year old was so used to constantly moving, she’s already asking when the family will have to leave. “It’s just clicking in” that this time, things are different, Colena said. With the backing and support from Bridges, she’s already dreaming about eventually going to college and building a secure future.

The help she has received is inspiring to her, she said. “I really like helping people who help the homeless.”

Escaping Homelessness with Life-Changing Support: Maria’s Story

The multi-pronged nightmare that enveloped Maria and her three children began long before the pandemic, with a years-long marriage to an abusive man who even blamed her for her son’s autism. That was followed by an eviction, cancer, long Covid-19, and long-term disability that knocked her out of a good government job. 

Now, thanks to years of help from Bridges to Housing Stability, she and her mostly grown children are living in a three-bedroom Columbia apartment and getting ready to move closer to family support in another state. 

It was a long, long road, filled with emotional potholes and problems. 

Already beleaguered by unending abuse from her then-husband, the family was suddenly evicted, she said. They ended up in her in-law’s basement for a time. “It was a horrible situation.” She finally worked up the courage to overcome her fear of being on her own, and she took the kids and left, to another basement apartment across the street. Her husband forced his way in sometimes and the fights prompted neighbors to call the police on occasion, she recalled. 

“I was just naïve and I didn’t know what to do. Nobody wanted to help us find an apartment,” she said, but eventually she went to Hope Works, the Howard non-profit that works to help victims of domestic violence. She got a judicial restraining order for protection against her husband’s threats. 

She also visited the North Laurel Community Center and spoke with a social worker who steered her to Bridges, which changed her life. 

In May, 2017, she and her children moved into a three-bedroom condo operated by Bridges. She later finalized her divorce and was awarded full custody of her youngest child, to minimize contact with her former husband. 

“Life improved, a lot,” she said. “Being with Bridges has been a blessing,” the 47-year old said. In addition to housing, Bridges has helped with food, school supplies, referrals for legal advice, and rental assistance while she waited for long-term disability payments to begin. “Without Bridges, I would have been homeless,” she added. 

Kristen Miller, a program manager with Bridges who has worked with Maria’s family, said she is one of the longest-term tenants the program has helped. “She’s great to work with,” Miller said. She reaches out when problems crop up, eagerly participates in Bridges’ educational programs, and “she’s always willing to help someone else. She’s been an ideal tenant,”  Miller added. 

Last year, Maria met a new, supportive partner, though he lost his restaurant job in the pandemic. She had just finished chemotherapy for her cancer, and then the whole family got Covid-19, but all survived. She still suffers from several symptoms of the virus, though. Her cancer is in remission but she is considered “high risk,” she said. “I couldn’t work for two years.” 

Still, she plans to get back to work and save money towards her own house. “I have three job offers,” the former electromechanical technician said. She can no longer do heavy lifting, but she has 22 years of experience in aerospace manufacturing. 

Her new boyfriend is also a blessing, she said, because he helps take care of her, and helps her set boundaries to avoid being taken advantage of. She’d done a lot of reading on abuse, she said, and on how to better protect herself. 

Now her focus is on the future and emerging from what she considers a transitional phase of her life to once again becoming independent and self-sufficient. 

“I really want to keep getting better and better.” 

Affordable, Stable Housing is a Life-Changer: Kevonne’s Story

In 2019, when Kevonne was about to give birth to her second child, she split with the father and began looking for an apartment.

Even then, before the pandemic, she quickly realized she would not be able to afford anything more than a one-bedroom unit. But then she found a listing on Zillow for an affordable two-bedroom apartment in Columbia. The landlord was Bridges for Housing Stability.

Unlike most of Bridges’ other clients, Kevonne was not homeless. She also had a full-time job, a car, and enough savings for a security deposit. She quickly took the unit and moved in. She’s still there, working the same job from her home.

“It was a program to help families, which was perfect,” she said. 

“Everything with Bridges moved very quickly,” she added. “I had the baby as soon as I moved in.” She plans to stay at least two more years, she said, when she hopes to have saved enough to move on. 

Her experience with the Bridges Alliance Program illustrates another aspect of the problems faced by many working people with children in Howard County. Although Bridges has 53 units that on average rent at a 40% discount to market rates, the need is far greater, said Dana Sohr, Bridges deputy director, and the former program manager who helped Kevonne and her children get settled.

“We’re short over 7,000 units of workforce housing,” he said. That means apartments affordable for people making between 30 and 60 percent of area median income. For a family of three like Kevonne’s, that means people earning between $32,713 and $65,427. For a family of two, the eligibility ranges from incomes of $29,078 to $58,157. People in the program can stay as long as they want to, Sohr said. “Alliance is a permanent housing solution,” not transitional housing, he added.

Still, “we’re just a drop in the bucket,” compared to the need, Sohr said, though the Alliance program has grown from one unit in 2014 to 53 now, thanks to grants and donations. Eighty percent of the Alliance participants are single parents, and one quarter have a disabled family member. The average household size in the program is 3.5 people and the average income is $48,384, according to Bridges’ statistics. In addition, 96 percent of households in the program remain stably housed after 18 months, and 53 percent increased their income in the past year.

Sohr said Kevonne’s family fit perfectly into the Alliance program. “It’s extremely hard to afford a market rent,” he said. Kevonne “was working and  organized, but not highly paid.”

Kevonne said the help has been critical for her future, enabling her to start saving money, and she is keenly aware of how rents in the retail market have risen. When she does finally move, she hopes to remain in the county.

“I enjoy it a lot,” she said.  

Carmen’s Journey from “Homeless and Hopeless”

For May 2023’s client story, we offer a video about Carmen Jones, who rents an affordable home through our Alliance program.

The video, created as part of our advocacy work with the Housing Affordability Coalition, highlights the housing challenges experienced by members of HoCo’s lower-wage workforce. Carmen speaks candidly about the struggles of homelessness and the transformational benefits she has experienced since regaining her housing stability. She is living proof that a stable home provides an essential foundation for success. We thank Carmen for her courage in sharing her story with us.

Watch Carmen's video below:

 

Gary’s Story: Job Loss and Homelessness

Resilience is perhaps the word that best describes Gary, 64, whose painful knees along with the pandemic cost him his warehouse job. The loss of his job led to his eviction and a year-long period wandering the streets.

“I was trying to work,” the former truck driver and warehouse worker said, “but after Covid, they let me go. That’s what put me on the street.”

Most of his monthly Social Security income was devoted to child support for teenage children. So, he put his belongings in storage and began scrounging under bridges, at bus stops or wherever he could find shelter. He tried at first to stay in the storage locker, “but I got caught,” he said.

Sometimes, “I’d wake up shivering and shaking, it was so cold,” he recalled of his time on the streets.

Those are painful but distant memories now. Thanks to help from Howard County’s homeless shelter, Grassroots, and Bridges to Housing Stability, Gary found a room to rent from a “nice lady” willing to share her house, and things are looking up.

Alberta Medley, his Bridges case manager, said that Bridges helped him check out his new place and vouched for him, in addition to paying his rent for a period of time. His child support payments will end soon, Gary said, and the resulting growth in his available income will put things right, financially. He has Medicaid for health insurance and receives $40 a month in food stamps.

“He’s definitely an easygoing dude; a joy to be around,” Medley said. “He had been through so much he sort of stays to himself,” she added.

Still, it was a long road. Gary said after months of wandering, he began visiting Howard County’s Leola Dorsey Center to get a shower and wash his clothes, and a worker there helped him get into Grassroots’ shelter.

Even then, it took him most of a year to get to a point where he qualified for help from Bridges, which provides services to stabilize people facing eviction or experiencing homelessness.

Gary found his new room on Craigslist, but Medley made sure it was legitimate. Sometimes, she said, people who advertise a room are about to lose their homes and are just looking for fast cash from a desperate renter. Not in this case. “The landlord is so sweet,” she said. Gary agreed. “She’s nice; she’s really nice,” he said.

“We gave him a welcome home basket with cleaning supplies and personal things, like a toothbrush,” Medley said. He had already recovered so well from his two knee replacement operations that she said she had no idea about the surgeries until he told her about them.

Bridges will pay his full rent for three months, and then slowly lower the amount until Gary can handle it all himself.  In time, perhaps a year or two, she added, he may be able to get a longer-term housing subsidy due to his low income. Gary said he can’t work right now because he has sleep apnea and can fall asleep virtually anytime.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the peace and stability he’s regained.

“I’m glad they did this for me,” he said. With the food stamps and an occasional visit to a food bank, Gary thinks he’ll be able to get by.

“It’s going to be tight, but I’ll be able to do it,” he said.

 

Harry: Working on Rebuilding A Life with Comprehensive Support

At age 52, Harry is hard at work building a new life. He has a job, a car and a small apartment in Columbia, thanks to his own efforts, support from his former prison chaplain, and assistance from Bridges to Housing Stability.  “I am thankful to be here and to have a new opportunity,” he said, adding that he is taking things “one day at a time.”

“I was making bad decisions at that time in my life and on this particular occasion,” Harry recalled of that day when he was pulled over by police on I-95 in Cecil County while transporting cocaine. The Brooklyn, New York native had come to Maryland to work in a car detailing business. Everything went great for a couple years, he said. But when business slowed down, money became scarce, and he succumbed to the idea of transporting drugs from New York to Maryland. His alcohol abuse and occasional dabbling in drugs added to his problems. “I know I did something wrong,” he said, noting the impact on his nearly grown two children.

His nearly four years in the Howard County Detention Center during the pandemic, as he awaited trial, was the start of his recovery. The chaplain there helped set him on the right path. When he was released to a transitional home operated in partnership between the Department of Corrections and Bridges, he got the more comprehensive support he needed.

Kristin Miller, Bridges Alliance Program manager, said that Bridges has 54 affordable rentals, including a four-bedroom house used since 2019 as a transitional home for men recently released from incarceration.

Scott Sheldon, the manager of the transitional home, said Harry had a spotless record at the jail and seemed more mature than some inmates. He often counseled other inmates while holding a jail job himself, and he was always looking for programs to help better himself. “Our target population are people who are pursuing positive transition support,” Sheldon said. Bridges helped Harry restart his life, obtain a driver’s license, learn about the technological revolution that accelerated while he was in jail, and eventually find more permanent housing. Harry is now living in an affordable rental provided by Bridges.

“I hadn’t been locked up until I was 40 years old,” Harry said, explaining that, unlike some people in trouble or homeless, he already had a history of working and budgeting and organizing a stable life. When he got out of jail and into the transitional home, “my transition wasn’t as hard as some.”

He found a warehouse job in Elkridge through word of mouth and spent an hour getting there daily, taking two buses and walking a mile, and then another hour getting back until he had saved enough to buy a car. Harry lived in the transitional home for one year when Bridges offered him a one-bedroom apartment he could afford. Scott taught him how to save money by shopping at second-hand stores, Harry said and was there as a resource when problems cropped up.  He regularly attends church and when he feels the need, he goes to AA meetings too, all while trying to rebuild links to his now grown children and his three siblings. He’s not making long-term plans just yet. “I just focus on work. I’m trying to piece it together,” he said, adding that by summer he hopes to begin making longer-term plans.

A Fresh Start on Life with An Affordable Home  

June, a single mom with two young children, had always depended on her partner to handle family finances and decisions, but over their decade-long history, she saw problems growing and knew she’d have to make a major change. 

Knowing and doing are two different things, however, and June needed help. She received it from Bridges to Housing Stability in the form of an affordable two-bedroom rental apartment. 

June said she “always had a really good job,” but she gave most of her earnings to her partner and children’s dad. He was “very controlling and manipulative,” she said, and convinced her to let him handle the money. 

As she passed age 30 and had a second child, she started trying to save money toward striking out on her own, but she also realized she knew nothing about personal finances. “I didn’t know anything about anything,” she recalled, and she was afraid. 

Finally, in 2020 she began researching apartment rents and found sky-high prices that were rising by the month. “It felt impossible because everything was so expensive,” she said. 

She had a niece who had previously received support from Bridges, so June called about finding a more affordable apartment. After several months on a waiting list, that paid off. 

“I will never forget this,” she said, choking up at the memory of getting the call that an apartment in Columbia would be available in April, 2021.” The news came just after another big fight with her children’s dad. “I’d left crying so bad,” she said. 

“Now that I have independence, I’m much more financially responsible,” she said. She had enough saved to cover the security deposit and she works for a major health care company, so her monthly income is adequate. 

Kristin Miller, who manages the Bridges Alliance program, said June’s situation is exactly the kind of difficulty that Bridges was created to address. 

“The Alliance program focuses on increasing the supply of affordable housing in Howard County. Bridges overall works to prevent and end homelessness and housing instability. By housing June’s family, we helped them achieve their goal of securing safe, affordable housing,” Miller said. 

June said she moved herself and the children into the new unit herself. The kids’ dad visits and she has filed for child support too, though he contributes sometimes anyway, she said. Seeking help formally was also a big emotional step, she said, because she didn’t want to risk any more drama or arguments. But she went ahead anyway and “he understood.”   

Bridges has continued to provide assistance, with grocery gift cards to help get past big holidays and Christmas gifts for the kids, too. 

“I wasn’t really going to do a big Christmas for them,” she said, but Bridges said they had a few gifts and when she went to pick them up, she was brought to tears. “When I saw the gifts for them, I was overwhelmed. I did not expect” so much, she said. 

Now, she’s focused on the future. Her family is stable now, and she wants to begin saving for a transition out of Bridges, hopefully in 2024.  

“I've been so much happier with the state of my mind,” she added. 

Financial stability has had another effect, too. “Without the stress and worries over a place to live and money for food, I can be the best mom for my kids.” 

 

Domestic Violence and Housing Turmoil

Maggie, a 42-year-old mother of two, has lived a roller-coaster style life these last few turbulent years, but thanks to help from Bridges and other Howard County organizations, she has finally achieved some stability. She has a three-bedroom condo apartment in Columbia, a used car, and two jobs.

“Right now, I’m in a better place, but it’s still not perfect,” she said.

The frightening downward spiral began as she struggled to escape domestic violence. When she and her husband separated in early 2020, she and her kids moved into a friend’s spare bedroom in Laurel. Within days, Maggie was laid off from her Washington job with a government contractor as the first wave of the COVID pandemic closed almost everything down. After a few months living with the friend, who was awaiting the birth of her own child and would need the spare bedroom for a nursery, Maggie and her family moved across the street to join another woman who offered to house them. She knew that situation would not last, though, and actively sought a way out.

“It was only me taking care of everything,” she said. “I lost everything. I felt so overwhelmed.” The family was sleeping on an air mattress for a while. She remained unemployed for a year, she said. But eight months later, her persistent and determined calling for help and filling out applications finally paid off. “I’d been calling everybody,” she said, but ultimately her children’s schoolteachers and counselors connected her with Help End Homelessness Howard County (HEHHC), a non-profit organization that managed rental homes for families earning very low income.

Kim Pace, manager of Bridges’ Housing Connections program, provided case management services for HEHHC’s tenants. She helped Maggie with move-in assistance as well as food resources, school supplies, household essentials, and financial help when needed. (In early 2022, HEHHC donated its program and rental homes to Bridges.)  Maggie got a temporary job at her daughter’s elementary school. She hopes to become a para-educator and permanent school employee. She also works part-time at a local supermarket. Key to her success, Maggie said, was her willingness to reach out and sometimes even help others in a sudden jam.

“I keep in touch with everybody,” she said. “I’m thankful I’m the person that I am,” she added. “I have a lot of friends. People helped me. That’s how I survive. I always think about my kids. They need me. I have great kids,” she said. Pace continues to keep in touch with Maggie and monitors her progress. Things are coming along, she said. “She’s a very nice woman who is dedicated to the betterment of her family,” Pace said. “And she’s determined not to let her circumstances define her.”

Living On A Financial Cliff: Nikki’s Story

Living On A Financial Cliff: Nikki's Story

The perils of living paycheck to paycheck can force people to a financial cliff. Nikki and her family were right on that edge when Bridges to Housing Stability stepped in to steady them. After being told by her landlord that she would have to move because her house was being sold, Nikki spent two frantic months finding a new place to rent. However, she lacked the money for the critical security deposit and first month’s rent.

“This had to be turned around in 4 or 5 days,” said Bola Afolabi, the Bridges Program Manager who interviewed Nikki. “If Bridges didn’t help, she wouldn’t be able to get help from anywhere. She would have been homeless for a long time.” Afolabi and Siju Oshin, a Bridges Housing Advocate, worked together on Nikki’s problem.

Before the landlord’s notice to vacate in May, Nikki and her four children were struggling, but she was managing in a rented townhouse in Howard County. Her two oldest children were in their early 20’s, the younger one in college, leaving her high school senior and 15-year-old still in Howard County schools. She had a steady job, a small amount of savings, and her family had been living in the townhouse for over four years.

Nikki worked as an assistant to young people with disabilities, visiting them at home to help with various aspects of their lives, when in late 2021 an angry client threw a metal object at her, badly damaging her wrist. She had surgery and was slowly recovering after months of physical therapy. She was on worker’s compensation, but ready to resume working, when her landlord told her she had 30 days to move.

“I was in a crisis,” she recalled “My anxiety started building up.” Her children’s emotional stability was also at risk, Nikki said. Her 17-year-old was looking forward to a triumphant high school graduation – not to becoming homeless. Her 21-year-old had to temporarily leave college.

“It set us back and put them back into depression,” she said about her children, who, like so many others, had struggled emotionally during the pandemic. “It brought tears to my eyes,” Nikki said.

She immediately began looking for a new place to rent. She had some savings, but not enough to pay a new security deposit and first month’s rent, and still cover car insurance and maintenance, and the rising prices for everything else. “I didn’t have it,” she said, and she persuaded the landlord to give her one more month in the home.

Finally, as she and her children began sleeping short-term with a variety of friends and relatives, and she was preparing to move her family’s belongings into storage, she was referred to Bridges.

For Bridges, said Oshin, Nikki’s problem was less complex and therefore easier to solve than many other cases where a family may already be homeless, without a regular income and with no car.

Nikki had already found another townhouse she could rent if she had the money and someone to vouch for her -- both things that Bridges can do. Oshin said that in times like these, when rents are climbing and affordable places are hard to find, Bridges works on helping people like Nikki who just need enough money to close the deal and a group like Bridges to reassure a landlord that she will be a dependable resident.

Nikki didn’t need continuous, long-term support. “She had really just fallen on hard times,” Oshin said.

The Bridges team gave Nikki exactly the help she needed. “She was awesome,” a grateful Nikki said about Afolabi. “She really was awesome.”

Now, things have mostly settled down, she said, and she is back at work. Nikki said she has only warm thoughts about Bridges.

“I love the help I got,” she said.

From a Tarp Over the Roof to Secure Housing

Sometimes one catastrophic event can throw a family into crisis, but more often, it seems like a series of problems pile up, one atop another.

That’s how Kim felt last November, living as a newly single parent with her six children, aged 3-17, in a Howard County townhouse with a leaky roof, mold, and a balky landlord.

“It was horrible, literally horrible,” she said. The landlord put a tarp over the roof and wanted to raise the rent, she added. “It was raining in the house.”

But that wasn’t all. Her partner had lost his job in the pandemic and then moved to Georgia, leaving Kim, 35, with little financial help and three children 6 and under, plus her three teenagers from an earlier relationship.  She was slowly falling behind on the rent, and her hopes of getting cash from pandemic assistance and later from her tax refund were dashed when she learned that someone had already seized them in the kind of fraud that became common during the worst of the pandemic.

“I was banking on my tax refund,” she said. “In the meantime, I was dipping into my savings to pay rent.” She and her children stopped using the top floor of the house because of the leaks and the mold. They all huddled on the lower floors, she said.

Kim realized she couldn’t just wait for disaster, so she reached out to Grassroots, Howard County’s crisis center and homeless shelter, and that made all the difference. Grassroots referred her to Bridges to Housing Stability and the Community Action Council, which paid off her back rent and helped get her other assistance, like a Thanksgiving bag of groceries, while Siju Oshin, her Bridges housing advocate, worked to find her a new place to live.

“She was the kind of woman who wanted to do the best for her children. She had dedication and she was always open to suggestions,” Oshin said. “I really enjoyed working with her.”

It took four months, from November, 2021 until February, 2022, but Oshin found a four-bedroom subsidized unit in Columbia for the family, and Bridges paid the moving costs, the security deposit, and half of the first three months of rent.

Kim is working, but money is tight, she said. She is also getting help going through the long process of collecting paperwork and letters from her children’s doctor, schools, and others to re-establish her own identity with the IRS and get the payments she is owed. In addition, she said, she is working with court authorities to begin getting regular child support, instead of the occasional cash she receives.

“I don’t feel like I have enough income but I manage to make ends meet,” Kim said. “Things are still tight.”

Holding herself together emotionally was also tough, Kim said, especially since her dad, who raised her, died in June, 2021, which was a big loss for her and her children.

“I had my moments,” she remembered, but her children were always her focus. “I had to keep it together for them.” she said.

Still, the help she received was crucial. “I really appreciate the help I got from Bridges, and I also greatly appreciated all the referrals and support they gave me and my family,” Kim said.

Robert’s Story: The Importance of Safe, Stable Housing   

After losing his IT job early in 2019, Robert struggled to find another position and eventually became homeless. After his unemployment benefits were approved, he was able to afford motels – but the money didn’t last long. Finally, near the end of 2020 – almost two years after his job loss – he was placed in the Cold Weather Shelter and then in the Grassroots Shelter.  

 

Once in shelter, Robert was referred to the Bridges Rapid Rehousing program, where he worked with housing advocate Yuri Choi to find stable, permanent housing. His main concern was to find affordable housing in a safe neighborhood near the grocery store where he had found part-time work. With the help of short-term financial support from Bridges and Yuri’s facilitation with a landlord, Robert was accepted for a one-bedroom apartment that met all his criteria.  

 

Robert reported that after being housed, he felt safe and stable enough to move forward with a serious job search. Five months after being housed, Robert found employment back in the IT sector: a Project Manager position with an salary of $84,000. In addition to regaining stable housing and employment, Robert’s health has improved significantly, and he's eating and sleeping better. He is “beyond thankful” for the support he received from Yuri and the Bridges Rapid Rehousing program.  

 

Stable Housing Creates Better Life Opportunities

To call Makita’s life difficult so far would be a vast understatement. After experiencing a fractured family growing up, abuse as a child, two former abusive husbands, and six children as an adult, the pandemic found her sleeping in her disabled car with her 6-year old and pregnant with her sixth.

“I dealt with abuse and domestic violence. I became homeless,” she said. Even after getting an apartment in Columbia, the chaos continued. Beset by post-partum depression after her youngest child was born and her second marriage failed, she felt alone and helpless.

“I had a breakdown,” she said. “I had to move and I had no help.”

That stress landed her in inpatient psychiatric care for several weeks, while her children were cared for by relatives, until she could get back on track.

Now, at 38, she is progressing, thanks to intensive help from Bridges for Housing Stability. She has a new apartment in Howard County from which she can walk to work. Her youngest, who just turned 2, is back with her, and she has Housing Advocate Danielle Winston and others at Bridges to rely on if she needs more help.

“That’s why her story is such an amazing story,” Winston said. “She does have major accomplishments,” along with training from life skills programs like Getting Ahead, budgeting, setting goals and sticking to them, and getting a therapist or life coach, which is a major achievement in itself these days. Winston added. “I told her, anybody who went through what you went through would have had the same reaction.”

No one can overcome such daunting odds and misfortune alone, and Makita understands her progress. “I’m really thankful for Bridges.”

Makita grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. Her older children are in the Howard County area, which is why she drove up to see them only to have  her car break down. A cousin who lives in Howard could not take her in, and she couldn’t afford to fix the car. Thus began her latest travails.

She did get help initially from Grassroots, Howard’s homeless shelter, which put her up in a motel for a few weeks. Her credit was bad, she said, which complicated things even more. She got an apartment in Columbia and stayed a year, but the landlord did not want her to remain and she had to move right after her baby was born in May, 2020, which sparked her mental health crisis.

Affordable Housing Crunch for Older People

The people we most often think of as homeless are single men or single mothers with young children, but Victory doesn’t fit that stereotype. She is one of a growing number of lower-income seniors who are finding they can no longer afford a decent place to live, and without help, are forced to sleep in a car or in a shelter.

Victory, age 63, decided to leave her marriage because she was so unhappy that she felt it was affecting her physical health. She got into her car and drove for hours until, tired, she found herself in Howard County, where she checked into an extended stay motel room.

“I wanted to start over again,” this woman of strong faith said, but she found that objective to be difficult on a very limited budget.

”I stayed in extended stay hotels until my money ran out,” she said. She then spent a number of nights in her car, which wasn’t restful. Forced to move several times a night, she gradually got worn down, but never stopped trying.

”I don’t feel hopeless,” she said. “The Lord is my strength. This is my anchor, my relationship with God. He wouldn’t put anything on me I couldn’t bear.”

Besides, this trial is far less a challenge than those she’s faced before. An aspiring physician in her youth, she worked as an operating room technician in a Pittsburgh hospital until she suffered a traumatic brain injury while setting up the room for surgery. A heavy metal ball attached to a microscope was sitting too low and hit her head, fracturing her skull. It took her seven years to recover, relearning how to talk, walk, and perform other basic functions. She was left with other symptoms including dizziness, which ended her medical school dreams. Then, some years later, a truck hit her in her parked car, which brought back some symptoms she had worked for years to overcome.

She raised her three children (now grown). She worked at a number of jobs, including starting a home cleaning business with a partner. But when she arrived in Howard County, she had little savings and just her monthly disability check for income. It confounded her that although her monthly check was enough to pay the $975 monthly rent in a subsidized apartment for seniors, the management required that her income be twice what it was, in addition to the required security deposit.

She didn’t have it.

“They didn’t care,” she said. “When I got here, I was expecting to find an apartment and see where I was going for the rest of my life.” She was shocked to find that even a bedroom in a private home would cost about what her small subsidized apartment now costs.

“I’ve never experienced nothing like that in my life,” Victory said.

Her days were spent in public libraries searching the internet for a way out. She eventually found Grassroots, which operates Howard County’s homeless shelter, which in turn brought her to Bridges. That’s when she began working with caseworker Kike Fisher-Akinyemi, who has been impressed by Victory’s fortitude.

“She does not give up,” Fisher-Akinyemi said. But despite that good attitude and work ethic, it still took months of work contacting loads of apartment communities to get Victory into an apartment that Bridges is helping pay for. Victory knows that the payments are only temporary, and she is actively working on ways to boost her income so she can stay when Bridges’ help stops.

“Eventually, she will have to be independent,” Fisher-Akinyemi said, which is exactly what Victory wanted in the first place.

Thanks to Bridges, she feels she has a chance to recover her stability and find a new profession. “I know it can’t be forever, but this will give me a year to get on my feet,” she said. The help

from Bridges was vital, she added, commending Howard County for the services it offers people in trouble. “I’m grateful.”

The way Victory answers her phone conveys her determination and faith.

“Hello, it’s a great day to be alive,” she told a caller.

Eliza and Mandy: When Medical Issues Spiral into Homelessness

Eliza and Mandy have worked for decades in medical billing jobs, but complications from medical problems snowballed into distress and homelessness that left them reeling for years -- until they finally found Bridges to Housing Stability and received the help they needed.  

Now, they’ve been living for five months in a Columbia condo owned by Bridges, which charges them an affordable rent.  In addition, Bridges staff members – including Kristin Miller and Kim Pace – found donated furniture for them, provided food and gift cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and have also helped with vital advice on budgeting and other needs. Now, Eliza and Mandy are stable once again. 

“The Bridges Alliance Program owns and operates 47 apartments and townhouses for people making low to moderate income,” said Miller, the program manager.  In addition to offering affordable rents, the program is often able to house families with rental histories that other landlords wouldn’t accept. 

Their long, fraught tale began in 2016, the two women said. They were living in a Baltimore County apartment when Mandy developed severe back problems that landed her in surgery four times over the next several years. Her long-term disability payments suddenly ended in the midst of her recovery, she said, and the couple could no longer pay the rent. 

Not understanding that they were in danger of eviction, neither was home when the sheriff showed up one morning and put all their belongings out on the street. Most of it, they said, was either thrown away or taken by passersby. It was a devastating blow.

“It was all over the parking lot,” Eliza said. “I thought they’d allow us time to get our stuff out.” Mandy said she was no help. “I could barely move,” after all the back surgery. They retrieved a few things, like some clothing they found outside, and belongings from their storage locker, but irreplaceable family heirlooms, along with their furniture, “was all over the parking lot,” Mandy said. “And then it started to rain.” This occurred just after her mother had died.

“The first night we went to a motel,” Mandy said, and then they moved to an extended stay hotel, which lasted about eight months. “We begged and borrowed money to stay,” she added, while Eliza arranged for them to move in with her mother and older brother. 

After six months there, family tensions came to a boil. Mandy had finally been approved for disability payments, she said, and with the first lump-sum payment she received for the previous months, she thought there might be enough to get a new place of their own.

But with an eviction on their record, they couldn’t find a landlord who would rent to them,  Mandy said. “No one would take us. No one.”  

The tension became too great to bear, and they ended up in another extended stay motel, which chewed up the savings they were relying on. Meanwhile, Mandy had fallen and broke an ankle, making things that much worse. 

“I had no hope. It was very hard,” Mandy said.

But this time, they moved to a motel in Columbia, just a couple miles from Eliza’s job. Mandy dug into her computer looking for a way out and stumbled on Bridges. After her initial contact, it still took months before Kim, who heads the Bridges Housing Connections program, and Kristin were able to find a place for them to live. A previous tenant had moved out of an Alliance unit.

 “It took a long time to get comfortable and relax,” Eliza said, “but now we can breathe.” 

Eliza and Mandy: When Medical Issues Spiral into Homelessness

Eliza and Mandy have worked for decades in medical billing jobs, but complications from medical problems snowballed into distress and homelessness that left them reeling for years -- until they finally found Bridges to Housing Stability and received the help they needed.  

Now, they’ve been living for five months in a Columbia condo owned by Bridges, which charges them an affordable rent.  In addition, Bridges staff members – including Kristin Miller and Kim Pace – found donated furniture for them, provided food and gift cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and have also helped with vital advice on budgeting and other needs. Now, Eliza and Mandy are stable once again. 

“The Bridges Alliance Program owns and operates 47 apartments and townhouses for people making low to moderate income,” said Miller, the program manager.  In addition to offering affordable rents, the program is often able to house families with rental histories that other landlords wouldn’t accept. 

Their long, fraught tale began in 2016, the two women said. They were living in a Baltimore County apartment when Mandy developed severe back problems that landed her in surgery four times over the next several years. Her long-term disability payments suddenly ended in the midst of her recovery, she said, and the couple could no longer pay the rent. 

Not understanding that they were in danger of eviction, neither was home when the sheriff showed up one morning and put all their belongings out on the street. Most of it, they said, was either thrown away or taken by passersby. It was a devastating blow.

“It was all over the parking lot,” Eliza said. “I thought they’d allow us time to get our stuff out.” Mandy said she was no help. “I could barely move,” after all the back surgery. They retrieved a few things, like some clothing they found outside, and belongings from their storage locker, but irreplaceable family heirlooms, along with their furniture, “was all over the parking lot,” Mandy said. “And then it started to rain.” This occurred just after her mother had died.

“The first night we went to a motel,” Mandy said, and then they moved to an extended stay hotel, which lasted about eight months. “We begged and borrowed money to stay,” she added, while Eliza arranged for them to move in with her mother and older brother. 

After six months there, family tensions came to a boil. Mandy had finally been approved for disability payments, she said, and with the first lump-sum payment she received for the previous months, she thought there might be enough to get a new place of their own.

But with an eviction on their record, they couldn’t find a landlord who would rent to them,  Mandy said. “No one would take us. No one.”  

The tension became too great to bear, and they ended up in another extended stay motel, which chewed up the savings they were relying on. Meanwhile, Mandy had fallen and broke an ankle, making things that much worse. 

“I had no hope. It was very hard,” Mandy said.

But this time, they moved to a motel in Columbia, just a couple miles from Eliza’s job. Mandy dug into her computer looking for a way out and stumbled on Bridges. After her initial contact, it still took months before Kim, who heads the Bridges Housing Connections program, and Kristin were able to find a place for them to live. A previous tenant had moved out of an Alliance unit.

 “It took a long time to get comfortable and relax,” Eliza said, “but now we can breathe.” 

Carmen Jones

(Bridges Alliance Program)

“A load of bad decisions” forced Carmen into three years of homelessness. Her only resources were an aging car and a waitressing job that didn’t pay enough to keep her permanently housed. For three years, she spent long periods living in her car, interspersed with short stays in weekly motels. As Carmen describes that dark time, she says “I was always just beat down. It was so frustrating to want to improve my situation – and knowing that I was capable – but because I didn’t have a stable home, I couldn’t get unstuck. Every time I took one step forward, something else caused me to take two steps back. I couldn’t stay organized – it was impossible to do that while homeless.” 

Then, in July 2019, with her car out of commission, a Lyft driver provided her with a phone number for Bridges to Housing Stability. Carmen submitted an application for Alliance, the Bridges affordable rental program, but her income was too low to qualify. The program manager discussed options with her, including the idea of joining forces with a family member or friend with their own employment income so that the two could share rent. As it happened, Carmen was hoping to be reunited with her son, 22, who was then renting a “dark, moldy” basement room in Columbia.  

Together, their two incomes qualified them for the program, and they were able to move into an Alliance rental unit. “The day we moved in, I got another breath of life,” Carmen says. “It was like the sun came out.”  

Carmen’s home has provided a platform for her personal and professional development. “Just having the safety and stability of the home, I could get myself organized, tackle my to-do list, and then think about the next steps. Everything started falling into place.” Her achievements have been impressive. 

While continuing to work multiple part-time jobs, Carmen enrolled in an IT certification program and just completed her final course.  

Working with a financial coach, referred by Bridges, she has increased her credit score by over 100 points.  

She has returned to regular medical visits and has been visiting the Maryland Dental School regularly to receive treatments for tooth disease.  

She has lost 50 pounds through regular exercise and improved nutrition.   

And she has begun to give back, by volunteering regularly with a community organization that distributes food to needy households.   

Her long-term goal is to start a non-profit focused on helping people who are homeless.   

Carmen reflects on the path she has taken. “None of this would have been possible without a roof over my head. I cry some nights about everything that I've wanted to do for so long, and how long it was put off while I was sleeping in my car. I'm so motivated now because I have stability.” 

 

Diamond Hall

(Housing Stability Program)

Diamond is an independent and driven veteran who has been stably housed within Bridges’ Housing Stability Program for over five years. Before entering the program, Diamond and two of her children were precariously housed and at risk of experiencing homelessness. Being in between jobs, paying child support for her third child, and commuting to work with no vehicle made saving money for an apartment a serious difficulty.

Diamond was reluctant to seek help but eventually reached out to Bridges and was determined eligible for the permanent supportive housing program.  However, her battle with depression made it difficult to manage daily living activities and achieve her dream of assisting veterans with finding resources needed to thrive in their communities. With the assistance of her case manager, Diamond was able to reconnect with her mother, who provides financial assistance and childcare when needed to support Diamond. Through case management, Diamond has also got connected to mental health and medical services. While Diamond worked to find employment, Bridges provided rental and energy assistance to ensure she and her children maintain stable housing. Diamond was ecstatic when she obtained a job working with other veterans. Becoming stably employed, implementing a budget, managing mental and physical health, and establishing a support system have allowed Precious to thrive and achieve a stress-free way of life. 

Diamond is very happy that her commuting issues have resolved by working at home. "Last year had its challenges, but I didn't give up," she proudly reported. Diamond’s consistency in the Housing Stability Program has made her eligible for a move-on voucher in Howard County, meaning she is stable enough to no longer case management and will continue to receive financial assistance. 

Nikesha: Living Through the Trials of COVID

The COVID pandemic nearly sunk Nikesha’s finances, but a combination of her own resilience, her self-described “bubbly personality,” and lots of help from several private and government agencies has kept her economically afloat -- so far.

“I’m still in hot water, but I’m not drowning anymore,” the 39-year old single mother of three said, thanks to pandemic relief money, temporary aid, and vital financial help from Bridges to Housing Stability.

A native New Yorker, Nikesha said she moved herself and her two youngest boys, both under age 10, to Columbia two years ago because all her expenses would be lower here than in the Empire State. She bought a car, rented an apartment with her savings, and was ready to start job hunting when “everything shut down. I had a whole bunch of things going on,” she said.

And as so often happens, the complications she encountered always made things worse. Her then 3-year old son has asthma, and her youngest was only a few months old, so she felt she needed to stay home. She also has some physical limitations: she can’t lift heavy objects, and a hand injury prevents her from typing for long periods of time.

But she’s game for the struggle. “I try to do prevention, she said. She had paid her rent several months in advance, but contacted her landlord and her car loan firm to explain the problem and ask for time. She got consideration from both. Then she started calling every possible relief agency she could find.

Meanwhile, since her older son’s New York college had also shut down, he came home and helped watch the younger children, so she was able to start working part-time.

After months, she was behind on all of her bills, but the Community Action Council was able to use federal pandemic relief money to pay her back rent. She stayed in touch with her lenders, explaining that she had worked since age 13 and paying what she could to show them good faith. 

Despite all that, she has received numerous eviction notices over the past two years, she said. “I had to go to court a couple of times,” she said, to persuade judges not to allow her eviction. None of the struggle was easy. “There was many a night and many a day I cried and felt fed up,” she recalled.

Finally, in October, 2021, she was referred to Bridges for case management and other services. 

That’s when Luveth Portillo Carbajal, a graduate student in social work and an intern Housing Advocate at Bridges, first met with her.

“She needed upcoming rent and she was looking for work,” Carbajal said.  Yet, since she had not been evicted and had acted so vigorously in getting help to stay in her apartment and keep her car, she was actually in better shape than many Bridges clients who are homeless and living in shelters.

“It does make it a lot easier” to help, Carbajal said, adding that Nikesha is a hard-working mother. She didn’t want to be dependent but she needed assistance, especially with finding day care after her 19-year old returned to college. 

She enrolled her older child in Head Start and her two-year old into day care, and a couple weeks later, landed a warehouse job through a temp agency. Bridges helped with her rent and used donations to provide Thanksgiving food and Christmas presents for her boys.  Bridges also found a donated computer she could use at home.

“I’m still overwhelmed,” she said, “but I’m still working,” said the former hairdresser.

“Because of the Grace of God, one day at a time,” Nakisha said. “They definitely helped me when I was at the weakest point in my life,” she said of Bridges and all the agencies who helped her stay housed and financially afloat.

Desiree Williams

(Housing Stability Program)

After Desiree aged out of the foster care system, her foster mom offered to let her stay for another two years. But then Desiree got pregnant and her housing situation became untenable. That began a nearly 7-year period in which she repeatedly fell in and out of homelessness.

At first, she was able to find housing with a cousin in Virginia, but the situation didn’t work out and she moved back to Maryland, without a permanent place to live.

She tried staying with different friends. Some stays were long, others brief.

Nothing lasted. Always she had to leave.

“It was an endless cycle,” Desiree says.

She tried to make ends meet, doing whatever work she could. At one point she worked as a restaurant server and part-time bartender while taking overnight shifts at Amazon. But she could never assemble enough money to stabilize her housing.

Over the years, her family grew to include her boyfriend and three children. The housing struggles continued. And because she and her boyfriend couldn’t afford a car, they were often unable to keep their jobs when they had to move. So the jobs came and went.

“It’s hard to get back on your feet when you’re homeless,” Desiree says. “It’s such a struggle. I had always wanted to restart nursing school, but that was just impossible as we were moving from place to place.”

Finally, at their lowest point, the family was placed in the Grassroots shelter for 7 months. And in late 2019, they were referred to the Bridges Rapid Rehousing program.

The goal with Rapid Rehousing is to move a client into a home within 30-45 days. Rapid Rehousing is grounded in the “Housing First” model, which experts increasingly view as an effective solution to homelessness.  The model assumes that people experiencing homelessness need basic necessities like food and a stable home before they can fully focus on other tasks such as job training, budgeting their money, and attending to their mental health. Studies have shown that the Housing First approach helps people exit homelessness quickly – and remain housed for the long-term. At Bridges, 85% of families transition from Rapid Rehousing programs to stable, permanent housing without additional subsidies.

The Bridges case manager found housing for Desiree almost immediately, and she and her family were able to move into their home in February, 2020.

“It was the best feeling,” she says. “It felt like we had made it. We finally had a roof over our heads for our children. And they had their own beds. A lot of stress was gone. It was a big relief and it felt like a big accomplishment.”

Desiree immediately turned her focus to restarting her education.

“As soon as we got into a home, I was able to restart school. That was always my goal but it was so hard to do when I was homeless.”

In 2020, Desiree completed training and received certification as a nursing assistant. And at the height of the pandemic, she found work in a nursing home. Then she pursued training as a Patient Care Technician and recently landed a job at the Howard County General Hospital. Her boyfriend has also been able to return to job training to become a licensed commercial driver.

Desiree can now see her future clearly. She is currently working full-time at the hospital and is also enrolled in school part-time to become a registered nurse. After that, she’ll continue with part-time school until she receives her bachelor’s degree in nursing. That should mean higher pay and the financial capacity to someday buy a home.

Desiree credits Bridges and the Rapid Rehousing program with helping her create the foundation for her success.

"Without Bridges,” she says, “I wouldn’t have been able to restart school. I wouldn’t have gotten the job at the hospital. Bridges helped me get stable, go to school, and keep a job. I had my head on right. I knew what I needed. I just needed help getting stabilized."

 

Sydney Smith Jr.

(Bridges Alliance Program)

At age 42, Sydney Smith Jr. had spent much of his adult life in trouble. He was a repeat offender who had bounced in and out of prison numerous times. When he wasn’t incarcerated, he was unable to sustain himself independently.   

“I never made it to my third month of rent in any place I ever lived,” he says, explaining that he was often homeless or forced to stay with friends.   

Awaiting his release from prison in 2019, he worried that the cycle was beginning all over again. “I knew that after my release, I didn’t want to keep breaking the law. I didn’t want to start getting high. I didn’t want to harm anybody. But at the same time, I knew that I didn’t have any real-life skills that would help me make it. That was a huge fear. I couldn’t see how I was going to succeed.” 

Sydney is not unique. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, returning citizens face tough obstacles. They have to find a steady job -- which often requires them to learn new skills – as they are dealing with difficult health issues such as addiction. Before they can tackle those challenges, however, they need a stable place to live. Unfortunately, returning citizens are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.  

Sydney was fortunate. Upon his release from prison, he was accepted into a local recovery house, where he stayed for six months and worked on his recovery from addiction. “At first I was totally afraid of the process,” he says. “But I found that I could commit, for the first time in my life, to allowing people to help me and guide me. Sobriety was one part of it. I knew that in order to have a chance, I couldn’t use drugs or alcohol. But it was also very important to get constant reassurance from people who told me that it was going to be okay.”  

When his time at the recovery house reached an end, he was accepted into the Guilford House, the transitional home for formerly incarcerated men that Bridges operates in partnership with the Howard County Department of Corrections (DOC). The home is a stable, supportive environment for its residents, who can stay for up to one year as long as they find a job and obey house rules that are overseen by a live-in house manager who is employed by DOC. Residents pay half of their work earnings into escrow, allowing them to build the nest egg they need to move into permanent housing.  

Sydney spent nearly one year at the Guilford House. During that time, he received promotions at work, became a Certified Recovery Coach, and began work on his certification as a Peer Recovery Specialist.   

“Guilford House was a great place for me,” Sydney says“It allowed me to save up first and last month’s rent. I was also able to buy a car, which expanded my work options even further. At the same time, I was learning how to manage money responsibly for the first time in my life. As an ex-offender, that stability helped to give me a new perspective. It was so important to be around people who were trying to accomplish the same things and find a new way to live life.”    

Sydney looks back on his journey in quiet amazement. “My life is now totally different. If you were to ask me about that guy coming out of jail 18 months ago, if I could believe that my life would be where it is today, I would have said that wasn’t possible. I wake up and I feel hopeful. I’ve got a job, a bank account, an insured car. I’m sitting here in my own rocking chair as I talk to you. I have peace today. That’s huge for me.”   

Michael (Housing Stability Program

Michael is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, father, and college graduate who became homeless after being falsely arrested in 2018 and spending two months in jail. By the time the charges were dropped, Michael had lost his high-paying job, house, and car. He then spent his savings living in hotels as long as he could while awaiting the start of the Veteran Affairs application process to receive his pension. During that process, Michael became homeless and went to live in the Howard County shelter. Michael describes this moment by saying, “that was very heartbreaking for me. I mean it was rough because I went from one situation to a rock bottom situation.”

Michael gained temporary employment and was able to obtain housing for about four months. However, after his work contract ended, Michael was laid off. In October 2019 was referred to Bridges to Housing Stability by his prison re-entry coordinator. Michael now had income from his veteran’s pension and began looking for housing and employment with a Bridges’ Housing Advocate and Employment Retention Specialist’s assistance. Michael remained diligent, although he struggled for some time to maintain long-term employment. In June 2020, when Michael began a supervisor position, he was on the road to self-sufficiency. By September, his case was successfully closed. However, in November, Michael had switched jobs again and needed financial assistance as he accumulated back rent while he was in between jobs. Bridges provided the one-time assistance Michael required to maintain stable housing. He is now self-sufficient and stably employed as a unity manager.

“They were able to help me get to the point where I’m independent again. I have a decent place to live, and my daughter has a decent place to live... They were patient enough to understand that I don’t have the money to pay for everything. If you leave me with nothing, then I will have nothing. I can’t eat, I can’t get to work…so they were understanding in that fashion,” says Michael.

Bridges is honored to have supported this veteran during his hardships to once again providing for his family and live comfortably. This is a true testament that with a little help from the community, hard work and tenacity pay off.

Jackson

(Housing Stability Program)

Jackson has suffered from an ongoing debilitating illness his entire adult life. He needs to use a wheelchair to get around and was unable to work due to his physical limitations and frequent hospitalizations. Living in his car for several years has made Jackson's condition much worse.

When Jackson was referred to Bridges, his disability income was $650 a month. He was willing to move anywhere in Maryland, but it was hard finding a wheelchair accessible, income-based unit. Jackson’s Housing Advocate at Bridges helped him obtain the necessary documents and complete his housing application. Soon after, Jackson moved into a supportive housing unit.

Jackson really enjoyed his new apartment but struggled to maneuver through the doorways of his building. The Housing Advocate advocated on Jackson's behalf with building management and within a few weeks, additional modifications were made to his door and the complex entrance. Bridges was glad we could help ensure Jackson has an accessible living space.

Jackson has been stable for nearly two years now and receives the medical care he needs to stay out of the hospital and remain active in his community.